NHL Preview: Western Conference

By Ryan Pike

1. Detroit Red Wings

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Red Wings rode their stacked roster and their team first mentality to a second-straight Stanley Cup Finals appearance. Despite being bested by the upstart Pittsburgh Penguins, the Wings are still the class of the Western Conference until another team proves that they’re not. Look for them to continue to feast on the slim pickings of the Central Division.

2. San Jose Sharks

The Sharks have been contenders in the Western Conference for many years, based on the dominating nature of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Over the off-season, general manager Doug Wilson flipped Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo and a draft pick for disgruntled Senators forward Dany Heatley. Now, the Sharks boast a trio of bonafide offensive weapons. The only things holding them back is their inability to make things happen at crunch-time and depth concerns behind the main trio. Still, Evgeni Nabokov’s netminding will hold the Sharks in games for the entire season.

3. Calgary Flames

Every season since 2004, prognosticators have looked at the Calgary Flames and predicted big things. Despite five years of disappointment, the Flames remain on the cusp of being Stanley Cup contenders. The main pieces of the puzzle are still in place– captain Jarome Iginla, goalie Miikka Kiprusoff and defenders Robyn Regehr and Dion Phaneuf. Over the summer, general manager Darryl Sutter brought in brother Brent to coach the team and acquired free agent defenceman Jay Bouwmeester from Florida to shore up the Flames’ back end. Will these changes put the team over the top? Maybe, but at least it should be enough to keep ahead of Vancouver.

4. Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks have been a good team for awhile, boasting the goaltending of Roberto Luongo and the emergence of the Sedin twins as scoring threats. However, the Canucks have some holes. Their defence, already their Achilles’ heel, might get worse with the departing Mattias Ohlund being replaced by Christian Ehrhoff and Brad Lukowich. Plus, scoring depth beyond the Sedins isn’t a sure thing– particularly with the Canucks turfing rookie sensation Cory Hodgson back to junior at the end of camp. The Canucks will still be neck-and-neck with the Flames for much of the season, though.

5. Chicago Blackhawks

The youthful Blackhawks surprised the NHL last year in the playoffs, marching to the Conference Finals before being stopped by the Red Wings. The team lost Martin Havlat and gained Marian Hossa in the off-season, and the departure of Nikolai Khabibulin removes a headache from the team’s locker-room and pocketbook. The Hawks won’t surprise the league again. Luckily, the Hawks boast one of the best core groups in hockey and are good enough to challenge, but not win, Central Division supremacy.

6. Anaheim Ducks

Three seasons removed from a Stanley Cup, the Anaheim Ducks have fallen a bit from their peak. Despite this, the team boasts a stellar trio in Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf. While the team doesn’t have amazing defenders beyond Ryan Whitney and Scott Niedermayer, the presence of steady veterans Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne and the goaltending tandem of Jonas Hiller and J.S. Giguere should keep them in the playoff picture.

7. St. Louis Blues

Which St. Louis team is the real deal? The Blues that struggled over the first half of last season, or the Blues that upended many contending teams towards the end of the year? Regardless, goalie Chris Mason is good enough to steal a few games and if the rest of the roster shows up to play, the Blues are talented enough to creep into the playoffs.

8. Los Angeles Kings

The Kings are a strange team. They have a lot of really good young players, including forwards Alexander Frolov and Anze Kopitar and goalies Jonathan Quick and Erik Ersberg. But despite all this promise, the Kings consistently fall short of expectations. The addition of Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams may settle the Kings down enough to make the playoffs for the first time since the lockout.

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